Tuesday, September 15, 2009


by Elie Wiesel

Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel's brief but riveting account of his survival in Nazi concentration camps, first published in 1958, took my breath away.
  I happened across it at a bookstore, previously unaware of its fame, and read it for the first time recently. Afterward I wanted to know more, so I read more about the book and Wiesel. So much has already been written about this book: analysis, so many attempts at interpretation, and even vitriol from naysayers, that this may well be seen as untimely and even unnecessary. However, I feel that works like this should be revisited over time so they achieve their purpose: that no one forget.

In 1944 at age 15, Wiesel was a deeply observant Jew who studied Talmud extensively and had begun studying Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). He and his family were taken from the ghetto and sent in packed cattlecars to Auschwitz, where he survived the horrors of that and other camps until finally liberated by Allied forces. His story is a story of endless torture, pain, starvation, brutality, exhaustion, and the horror after horror he witnessed committed by the Nazis. The extent of the horror and inhumanity are incomprehensible to us, who did not experience it.

There are actually critics, or holocaust deniers, who take issue with the minor details of Wiesel's narrative to decry it as a fabrication--claiming men could not walk x miles in one night, or that certain specific dates or times are inaccurate. However, the power and importance of this book is not in the details but in the emotion, the feelings, the realizations Wiesel conveys as he details the stripping away of every shred of his humanity and beliefs.

Oprah is quoted as saying "his strength inspires me" regarding Night. This is not a book about how Weisel found the strength to live, however. (His new Preface makes clear he feels it was an accident that he lived.) It's about his anger--his fury at being forced to revert to the basest of survival instincts. His anger at giving up his most closely held religious, ethical and moral values because there is no way to remain alive and to uphold his values. As one example, as his father becomes sicker and weaker, Weisel realizes that he cannot continue to remain alive and also help his father. His primal instincts haunt him as he begins to wish his father were not with him. He hates himself for these feelings, and hates God for allowing it all to happen.

Weisel, as many, cannot reconcile the existence of God with what he sees being done to God's chosen people, but still he prays to God for help. Despite his prayers for help, the Nazis took away everything Weisel was--his values, his humanity, his religion, his faith in God, his belief that God was in control and all-powerful. Stripped of this, Weisel writes "Never will I forget that night, that first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night."

Some might ask "Why read such a book?" and to that I say: I read this out of a desire to comprehend the Holocaust. What was done to the Jews was born of incomprehensible evil, but the courage of Weisel and others to turn again to face this evil and write, so that we can try to understand, is true bravery and a gift to humanity.

I also want to go beyond understanding how survivors of the camps survived, to how they can go on. I want to know what life can mean to survivors after they have seen what they saw, been through what they went through at the camps. And, more than anything, I need to know how to make sure this never, never happens again.

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